Despite a spring snowstorm, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) staff discussed toxicological research with nearly 7,000 attendees at the March 12-16 Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting in Baltimore. Scientists from NIEHS and NTP led scientific lectures and poster presentations, workshops about research funding, and networking events. Several received awards (see related story).
Discussing scientific discoveries
A history of solution-oriented research was the focus of a session presented by the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP). Speakers discussed new ways to study complex mixtures of chemicals in the environment and new pollutants of concern, such as environmentally persistent free radicals. These are chemicals that bind to particles in the air and persist for months or years rather than breaking down.
Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), presented findings related to the vulnerability of children to toxic metals like arsenic.
Some SRP research centers test the effectiveness of health-promoting interventions for people living near hazardous waste sites. “Our data suggest that diets rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients can improve health and decrease the vulnerability to additional chemical stressors,” said Bernard Hennig, Ph.D., of the University of Kentucky SRP Center.
Poster sessions provided opportunities for toxicologists to directly discuss their findings with one another. Ryan Snyder, a UNC doctoral student who works in the NIEHS Immunity, Inflammation, and Disease Laboratory, presented a poster about how multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) may affect cells within the lungs. MWCNTs are tiny hollow fibers used in a range of industrial and consumer products, and they may end up in the environment when products are used or break down.
Snyder conducted a sequence of experiments that showed MWCNTs can impair development and function of tiny hairs in the lung called cilia, which help to clear foreign particles out of the lungs.
New tools for toxicological research
Tests to predict whether a chemical may be toxic to humans are evolving to include computer-based models and rapid cell-based approaches, as well as tests on animals. Several new computational tools were unveiled at SOT.
Scott Auerbach, Ph.D., who leads the NTP Toxicoinformatics Group, demonstrated software called BMDExpress 2.0. He explained that toxicologists can use the software to determine doses of chemicals that result in gene changes within cells. Such changes are evidence that the chemical is somehow affecting the cells.
For genes that work together to control a biological process, like synthesis of cholesterol, the software combines the information and determines a dose that may affect the overall process. The dose information can be used to determine whether a chemical is hazardous, which is valuable information that helped the software win a best abstract award.
“What we did was determine the best practices when using BMDExpress 2.0 to minimize false discovery, while maximizing true discovery and reproducibility, so that if the experiment was run again you would get largely the same findings,” said Auerbach.
Another new tool, the Integrated Chemical Environment (ICE), allows toxicologists to view and download data from animal and nonanimal toxicity testing to determine whether additional testing is needed to understand a chemical’s potential toxicity. Shannon Bell, Ph.D., of Integrated Laboratory Systems, Inc., provided ICE demonstrations at the NIEHS-NTP ToxExpo booth and during a scientific session about tools from the NTP Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods.
Networking for future collaborations
For postdocs, SOT is important for getting established as a scientist in the field, as well as for networking and making connections, according to Natasha Catlin, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the NTP Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology group. Catlin co-organized a speed networking event, during which postdocs spoke briefly with professionals in a variety of fields. She said she received positive feedback from both the postdocs and the career representatives at the event, who liked the informal, small-group format.
“It’s energizing to talk to people who are excited about science,” said NIEHS Program Director Mike Humble, Ph.D., whose interactions at SOT included students and postdocs supported by NIEHS-funded training grants.
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)